After trying in vain to meet with developers of a planned Connecticut Avenue high-rise in Northwest Washington, residents of Chevy Chase and Friendship Heights finally got their chance.
About 300 people came to a meeting Wednesday night to vent their frustration over the residential project, which is to be built by Calvin Cafritz Enterprises on the southeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and Military Road.
Many neighbors say the building, with its glass facade, is inconsistent with the surrounding community. They conveyed their critique to the developers, Jane L. Cafritz and Calvin Cafritz, during the meeting at the Chevy Chase Community Center.
With the line of residents waiting to ask questions snaking around the back of the room, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) did her best to moderate the meeting, which was full of biting comments and provocative questions.
“I take offense when you don’t represent the facts properly,” William Walde, owner of Chevy Chase Towers, a nearby apartment complex, said to the Cafritzes. “You’re not telling us the truth.”
The Cafritzes, for the most part, declined to speak, deferring to their attorney or the architect.
The proposed building is a 263-unit, nine-story, glass- and-steel structure with a two-level underground parking garage.
Opponents of the building have organized into the 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition.
Their options are limited. The building plans are consistent with the lot’s high-density residential zoning allowance, and the lot is considered a “matter-of-right” property, meaning Cafritz Enterprises can move forward with building plans without the approval of the community, as long as the plans are consistent with the lot’s zoning, according to Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs spokesman Helder Gil.
Staff from the DCRA and other D.C. agencies attended the meeting but largely stayed out of the debate.
Neighbors expressed concerns about the height of the building, increased traffic and parking and the environmental impact and the overall aesthetic of the project. In addition to quality-of-life issues, neighbors say they are concerned the building will cause property values to plummet.
“The design of the building is going to be very damaging to the community,” Friendship Heights resident Peter Gosselin said. “An all-glass tower is terrible. It doesn’t build into urban landscape, and it doesn’t fit into suburban landscape, either.”
At one point during the meeting, Jane Cafritz suggested the developers would make changes to the facade, but in an interview afterward, she made clear the facade would remain glass.
“That’s disappointing,” Cheh said in an interview Thursday. “There are few, or maybe zero, legal levers to employ to encourage the Cafritzes to make the changes. But I’m relying on their long-standing connection to the District and their at least stated willingness to accommodate the community.”
Neighbors say they don’t want to halt the project but want to work with the developer to modify the design.
“We are not opposed to a building being built there,” said George Gaines, a Friendship Heights resident. “We just want a building that doesn’t completely ignore the interests and the rights of the buildings that have been here for 100 years.”
For Gaines, this ordeal feels like deja vu. Twenty-two years ago, he headed a group that negotiated with Cafritz Enterprises when the land was first purchased. Concessions were made under an agreement that satisfied both the community and the developer, Gaines said.
But the market soured and construction never began, said Ellen McCarthy, a land-use expert and member of Ward 3 Vision, a pro-development community group.
The agreement and the mutually beneficial concessions expired, McCarthy said.
The lot’s zoning category allows for high-density residential building.
“The zoning administrator found that what was proposed met the zoning requirements for the lot,” DCRA spokesman Gil said.
Cafritz submitted all required permits to the department, Gil said. One permit has been approved and the others are expected to go through once the building plans are finalized, he said.
There are some “minor” issues with the plans, which are several hundred pages long, Gil said.
The 5333 Connecticut Neighborhood Coalition has retained a lawyer and is prepared to take legal action, Gosselin said.
“We’re not going to get rolled on this,” he said. “The matter-of-right building expression has been thrown around as if somebody says it’s matter-of-right and we all go home. We don’t think he has that right.”
The reality is there’s not much legal ground for a challenge, said McCarthy, a Friendship Heights resident and director of planning and land use for the law firm Arent Fox.
“It’s hard to file a suit on zoning,” McCarthy said. “It’s more likely that they would find some area where the interpretation of the law isn’t entirely clear.”